- “Tea and cookies. Diavolo!”: Italian American Masculinity in John Fante’s Wait Until Spring, Bandini
[T]he Italian-American has found himself in the dilemma of reconciling the psychological sovereignty of his people with the aspirations and demands of being American.—Richard Gambino (35)
The long, prolific career of Italian American novelist John Fante (1909–1983) is bracketed by a quartet of autobiographical novels spanning the adolescence and young adulthood of Fante’s fictional alter ego, Arturo Bandini, an Italian American man who dreams of and finally achieves literary success. Beginning in 1936 with the long-unpublished The Road to Los Angeles (published 1985), through the national successes of Wait Until Spring, Bandini (1938) and Ask the Dust (1939), and concluding with Dreams from Bunker Hill (1982),1 the sequence generally is viewed as an exploration of the American promise and a representation of the generational conflicts characteristic of immigrant families.2 But the Bandini family drama hardly makes for another Algeresque tale of an American dreamer, nor does it reveal generational attitudes toward old-world values in their conventional form. Wait Until Spring, Bandini—the novel that most explicitly addresses the Italian American experience—ends not with Arturo’s achievement of typically American success in the public realm, but instead with a more distinctly Italian goal: the restoration of his family in the wake of his father’s abandonment. More significantly, Arturo’s climactic efforts emerge amid the disgrace and defeat of his father, Svevo, who has left his wife and sons at Christmas for an affair with a wealthy widow. The narratives of father and son are inextricably entwined; indeed, the novel’s title collapses Svevo and Arturo into a composite character, the dreamer awaiting the rebirth of spring and a return to the activity (bricklaying for Svevo, baseball for Arturo) that he hopes will secure his fortune. At novel’s end, spring—and all it promises—has yet to arrive. But while Arturo’s nascent heroism suggests the brighter future Ask the Dust will provide, Svevo’s failure is conclusive, a cautionary tale at the inception of [End Page 43] Fante’s saga. A study of Svevo’s downfall is, therefore, essential to a complex understanding of this landmark Italian American bildungsroman, one which not only affirms a set of distinctly old-world values but also specifically reverses the conventional generational dynamics of immigrant fiction by positing the Italian-born father—and not the American-born son—as the primary betrayer of his Italian heritage.3
In real and fictional Italian American families, it is typically the children and grandchildren of immigrants who, in pursuit of an American identity, challenge l’ordine della famiglia, the characteristic ideology of southern Italian immigrants that establishes the family as the primary social unit and determines relationships not only between family members but also between family members and outsiders. In Bandini, however, it is Svevo Bandini who violates this code of behavior, adopting the American values of independent ambition and professional achievement in place of the traditional Italian emphasis on personal sacrifice and family loyalty.4 Like many immigrant men, Svevo hungers to “make America,” but discovers that doing so requires a hard-knuckled individualism alien to traditional Italian values. To be an American man risks failing as an Italian man. But continued allegiance to Italian values risks a potentially more dire fate. As the quasi-sexual imagery of the phrase implies, “making America” secures for the immigrant man fruits of conquest that testify to his masculinity. Assimilation thus becomes a test of manhood, and failure to assimilate is failure to be a man in the cultural context that seems to matter most: the dominant American one. From this cultural logic emerges what we might call an ethno-misogyny, in which aspects of a devalued Italian identity become feminized; thus Svevo, in his pursuit of assimilation, consistently repudiates Italian values as unmanly, a repudiation that involves repressing his Italian identity as a threat to his tenuous self-conceptions not simply as an American but as an American man. Wait Until Spring, Bandini is Fante’s response to this ethno-misogyny, an impassioned defense of traditional modes of Italian...